Copyright © Laurence Lockridge, 1994 / All rights reserved


pp. 271--309

Leaf Motif



Departures and homecomings give rise to the pathos of Raintree County. Reported dead, John Shawnessy returns from the Civil War to confront two new tombstones in Danwebster graveyard, his sweetheart Nell's and his own. Years later he returns from New York City upon news his mother is dying. His friend the Perfessor surmises that all myths of homecoming are really myths of death. Shawnessy never enjoys a triumphant homecoming and spends most of his life anyway in the county of his origin.
     But the larger novel narrates triumphant homecomings of several of his friends, back in Raintree County for the 1892 Fourth of July celebration in Waycross (i.e. Straughn), Indiana--a politician, a financier, and an army general. They've all made it out there in the world and can now enjoy an afternoon of hometown applause. Also stepping off the train that day, to no applause, is the infidel Perfessor, chased out of the county many years earlier.
     Ross Lockridge takes his plot from a short story, "The Great Stone Face," which turns on an obvious irony. Nathaniel Hawthorne's stay-at-home, idealistic, lowly Ernest is seen by local people in the end to have a nobler profile than four returning hometown heroes, yellow-faced and weather-beaten. He himself thus fulfills the local prophecy that a great and noble personage would someday appear whose face resembles a face shaped by nature in the side of a mountain.
     Throughout the Fourth of July, in a series of flashbacks, fifty-three-year-old Shawnessy reviews his life, which began in expectations but has seemingly come to little beyond a wife, three kids, and a small house in a hick town. Despite this, amid fireworks and exclamations of children at the end of the day, the Perfessor hoarsely declares, "Behold! John Wickliff Shawnessy is himself the Hero of Raintree County!"
     On his own triumphant Fourth of July homecoming to Bloomington, Lockridge played ironic counterpoint to his fictional hero, a would-be poet who never finishes his great work. Was Lockridge outstripping the sad wisdom of his own novel? Perhaps an American epic could be written after all. And perhaps this homecoming signaled a new life--recognition, a career free of paper-grading, the liberation of his wife from the typewriter and of his children from Mountfort Street, and no more sackcloth and ashes.
     As if to confirm that his euphoria must have been anchored in sand, I'll have to assume here that my own reader has never read Raintree County and, if lucky, has never seen the MGM "film."
     In my academic writing I've been urging, to an audience of tens, a renewed ethical criticism, pretty much swept under by reigning critical agendas. One of my plainer assumptions is that a literary work provides writers with an arena of moral experimentation, where they can ask of themselves "What if?" and "What then?"--concocting premises of character and situation and seeing what follows.
     Formalist critics in the forties and fifties warned us against literary biographers, who have nothing to tell us about literature in itself. Who cares why Shakespeare willed his second-best bed to his wife or whether he had anything in common with Hamlet or what he intended in Troilus and Cressida? What matters is what ended up in the plays. Now the formalists are themselves in disgrace, sent packing by historicists, deconstructionists, and neo-Freudians.
     With due respect to two maligned parties, I think a critic can still combine the formalist's delight in fictional structures with the literary biographer's passion for authorial self-revelation. Writers invite this critical flexibility because they often test dynamics of their own personalities, finding their material very close to home, altering it in various ways, and in effect asking "What if?" and "What then?" My metaphor for authorial composition is less the familiar one of "playing" than of "testing."
     Lockridge insisted he makes only a cameo appearance in his own novel--on page 555 as the Raintree County photographer, E. R. Ross--but the novel is in part a continuous testing of aspects of his own personality, parceled out to various characters in situations of opportunity and crisis. This is only one dimension of Raintree County--the one of interest to us here--because, as Paul Brooks said, it is also "refreshingly objective" in contrast to all the "narcissistic" fiction that was deluging the American public.
     A private person, Lockridge wrote a novel in no way private, where he opened up to public view all he most valued, all he most feared. The novel takes us on a journey into an interior only hinted at in his earlier writings and correspondence.


We can make our way there first through contrasts between Lockridge himself and a few characters both historical and fictional--contrasts that lie embedded in the novel's origin and structure.
     When his mother called his deceased grandfather John Wesley Shockley a great man, Lockridge didn't challenge the estimate. His grandfather's learning was uncommon for someone with almost no formal training beyond primary school.
     Certainly he spelled better than his brothers. During the Civil War his brother Elisha wrote another brother Franklin: "Since I rote to you we hav had A picknic here A man by the name of Mikel Cornelle was shote fore shootin at A corprele it look hard fore A man to follow his coffin around and to stand by the side of his coffin and twelv men shoot at him but we must obey orders. . . you want me to write to you whither I wold let Henry go an live with you I will tell you whot I think About that. . . I hav no objetion to him living with you fore I know that you will take care of him right I want him rais right It wod greav me to here him sware an talk as other boys do I want him and sis sent to school and not be rais in ignorunce fore if you was here and see the negros you wold say giv me education."

John Shockley cultivated a different discourse:


While acknowledging the quaint Tennysonian echoes, Lockridge loved this poem, especially the last three lines.
     I'd call it a species of Hoosier Orientalism. John Shockley's poems are escapist, many of them dream visions. They often find him choosing among an embarrassment of riches. When twelve beautiful maidens descend in a basket, our poet swiftly marries the youngest and best-looking. In "The Two Girls" the poet spies on Katie and Mat swimming in the nude, prefers Katie, and marries her. He tries his hand at the short story: After cheating death in a Nashville hospital, Alfred Kline becomes a New York bohemian poet, woos Jennie on Lake Tahoe over the objections of her parents who would rather she perish at the hands of Indians, rescues her from an inundated tree, whereupon they drift out into the Pacific Ocean and live happily ever after. There are some folksy coups de plume with more local color, but John Shockley often deploys his imagination to get the hell out of Indiana and away from his sober wife Emma.
     I find no unfinished epic in his surviving works to suggest a larger literary ambition. The closest is "An Indian Idyll," which exists in three unfinished drafts and concerns an ancient temple of twelve large slabs, on which an epic legend has been etched in an Indian language now lost. Another lengthy narrative poem, "A Summer Dream," mingles Spenser, Coleridge, and Keats, as my brother Ernest notes, in an Edenic quest romance full of birthing monstrosities.
     Adapting his grandfather to the role of leading character, Lockridge asks, in effect, what if we give him true epic ambition and what if we bolster somewhat his literary pedigree? John Shockley was born on April 29th, so he nudges the gestation back a few days and gets his hero John Shawnessy born on Shakespeare's official birthday, April 23rd, improving on his own near miss of April 25th. (We know for sure only that Shakespeare was baptized on April 26th.)
     He also slips in an old family legend that his great-grandfather William B. Shockley was a bastard son of Thomas Carlyle. His fictional counterpart T. D. Shawnessy strongly hints this in confessing his bastardy to his son. (There are only two problems with this legend. One is the common opinion that Carlyle died a virgin. The other is that Carlyle was born in 1795 and W. B. Shockley in 1801, so even if the Victorian Sage was unacknowledged stud to all the lasses of Ecclefechan, it seems unlikely he got started by the age of six.)
     Other tailorings of his grandfather show that Lockridge was in effect asking, What if I make Shawnessy more like me? Where John Shockley had been born eighth in a family of fifteen children, Lockridge makes John Shawnessy the youngest in a somewhat smaller family and, like himself, an accident. Shawnessy like Lockridge decides on a career of writer at the age of seven.
     More telling are the many personality parallels. Both Lockridge and Shawnessy are fascinated by words and totally absorbed as readers, are students of classical literature and myth, and ponder time, antiquities, and old photographs. Both entertain a sense of special destiny as writers, in a clash of native humility with egoism. Their keen interest in sex chafes against an inner check. They have a capacity for friendship, male and female, yet give the impression of holding something in reserve. They are fast runners and competitive in a self-punishing way. They are smiling, handsome, rather soft-spoken and shy, heterosexual, attractive to women, and possessed of a vitality and optimism sometimes seen by others as naive. They are idealist in philosophy, non-literal in religion, liberal socialist in politics, and are always trying to do the right thing. Except on occasion, neither smokes or drinks or swears. Neither tells his parents off.
     Beneath this formidable miscellany is a trait Lockridge lays out schematically early in his novel. His hero is "plural"--on the one hand he is Mr. Shawnessy, "a dutiful citizen of the Republic calling for his mail," and on the other he is mr. shawnessy, "a faunlike hero poised on the verge of festive adventures." Mr. Shawnessy is the public family man bounded by custom who lingers on thresholds without crossing and acts as "a large comfortable mask" for his twin.
     "mr. shawnessy," in turn, runs into naked women on stone slabs in post offices, crosses all boundaries of time and space in an "eternal vagabondage," and feels his mythic participation in the history of the human race from Genesis to Revelation. "His face peered furtively from a frieze of the Parthenon, passed in mob scenes in the reign of Justinian, crossed with crowds on Brooklyn Ferry ever so many centuries hence. . . Mr. Shawnessy had made the turn north onto the County Road. But the insouciant twin had kept the westward bias."
     They are of course one person, the narrator concedes, but it is largely mr. shawnessy who hopes to write the great epic of his people.
     When Raintree County appeared, some of Ross Lockridge's friends and acquaintances were surprised by the novel's depth of feeling. They had known him as someone with "a delightful sense of whimsy and of relaxed fun," who "carried a truly impressive fund of erudition as naturally as breathing," as Don Smalley would write his wife Ruth. "In contrast and in conflict there lived the other Ross who felt driven to greatness, a Ross carefully hidden from friends and colleagues, I would judge, certainly from me"--and this Ross, Smalley thinks, must have been punishing to the other. I agree.
     Lockridge attempted half-seriously to revise his persona when returning from Europe in 1934, to make the smiling young man more consistent with the serious consciousness within, if only to impress the girls. He was annoyed by his affable public self, satirizing it as Mr. Shawnessy, and yielding his pen to the lyrical, memory-haunted self within. Only in his novel was this self permitted to speak.
     Given these resemblances in personality between author and main character, Lockridge transforms the circumstances and happenings of his own life, as if to put himself by proxy through a more severe testing.
     What if, for example, he had like Bruce confronted death by drowning? Johnny Shawnessy at seventeen tries to follow the Shawmucky River down to Paradise Lake and gets lost in the Great Swamp, where he drops neckdeep into ooze, at the last moment grasping an exposed willow root. "He clung to the willow, gasping with a fear he hadn't felt during the struggle. Around him, impassive, secret, beautiful, the Great Swamp shimmered and stank. With a brutal indifference, his own earth had nearly killed him."
     For a youth who has been reading Shakespeare on the banks of his beloved river and dreaming of noble fame, the experience is chastening. Nature, which had worn a nurturing human face, must now be engaged without sentimentality.
     And what if Lockridge had lost Vernice Baker to a rival? Shawnessy watches as Nell Gaither makes out with Garwood Jones backstage at a performance of his own temperance play. In a privileged life, this would be a momentary discomfort overcome by love and perseverance. But though Johnny and Nell do love one another, he is at first hemmed in by the thornhedge of his reluctance and then dogged by a series of mishaps--including the bad luck that her aunt is still up when they try to sneak into Nell's bedroom. Nell eventually marries Garwood, with disastrous consequences for her and Johnny. Nell eventually marries Garwood with disastrous consequences for her and Johnny.
     And what if Lockridge had not been declared 4-F for the draft and had got into the fuss, confronting real enemy in combat? John Shockley's own military service was as an assistant surgeon in the 134th Regiment of Indiana Volunteers. He didn't enlist until late spring of 1864 and may have seen no action. Once again Lockridge enhances the raw materials. Shawnessy fights all the way from Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge to Atlanta to the sea. He discovers that half of courage is fear, that battles can be lost and depend largely on chance, that heroic ideals are lost sight of on the battlefield, where men shyly hold their own guts in their hands, and that even he, Shawnessy, can simplify his concepts and learn to hate.
     In his single most telling pronouncement to his publisher, Lockridge made clear the autobiographical thrust of his novel and laid the grounds for the reading I offer here. "For my part," he told them, "while the Republic was bleeding, I hid behind a thousand skirts and let J.W.S. bleed for me all over the thousands of MS. pages of Raintree County."
     And what if Lockridge hadn't recovered from scarlet fever in 1935? What would have happened to the world in the aftermath of this terrible loss? , Falsely reported dead, John Shawnessy has a rare opportunity to gauge public reaction. The man who discovers him still alive is disappointed because he'd been named trustee of an educational fund in his name. Nell Gaither recovered enough from the bad news to marry his rival, Garwood Jones, almost in time to make use of the funeral baked meats. Garwood's terrible poetic tribute ("Lo, where is Seth, that erst did fill these glades / With laughter and rejoicing blithe and brave?") appeared with typos on the back page of the Clarion. And his mother has stopped wearing black. Life goes on in Raintree County. "After all, what did the dead expect? Did the dead have any rights?"
     Such chastenings, contrasted with the better luck of the author, could be extended: Shawnessy never recovers his lost son, he doesn't win any elections. And though he does win the great Fourth of July footrace in 1859--while Lockridge was always eating dust--he pays for his victory tragically.
     Most important, he never finishes the great work. In his youth Shawnessy writes a conventional temperance play and some derivative sentimental verse. While living in New York City he attempts a play, Sphinx Recumbent, but is unable to finish the fifth act. And now the great epic of America languishes. Politely assuming lack of genius isn't the problem, the Perfessor speaks like a modern-day historicist: "All so-called great men are the result of human collaboration before, during, and after the fact. With a little cooperation from Fate, you might have been America's Shakespeare, John, but you lacked the human context. A whole age worked to create the Plays, which are not unwisely attributed to a dozen other men besides the man who penned them." As we have moved from the Age of Lincoln to the Age of Senator Garwood B. Jones, the epic potential has withered.
     The Perfessor's judgments, always incisive, are never sufficient. Exactly why Shawnessy can't otherwise get on with his epic isn't made explicit. In a passage Lockridge deleted, perhaps for being too explicit, Shawnessy reflects that Shakespeare didn't himself suffer the fates of Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Lear, or Cleopatra, and enjoyed an enabling aesthetic distance. Whereas, "I lived perhaps too deeply to give back what I have lived."
     This is the rub. Shawnessy is too haunted by his own tragic past to make the conversion from life to art, to be the artist-contriver who, with radiant pencil, converts memory into "a legend of light and shadow, some faces on the great Road of the Republic." Although another kind of creative power will be ascribed to him, he is too steeped in his own unfinished life to see it whole and write his way out of it. Instead of the artist he is "the rememberer."
     Lockridge is an innocent compared with his proxy shawnessy, who suffers many irreparable losses--his sweetheart Nell Gaither, his first wife, susanna, and their son, James, his parents, and his army buddy Flash Perkins, "the most affirmative being Johnny shawnessy had ever seen."
     Because his suffering is more through imaginative identification than literal mishap, Lockridge can write, in a trial of his projected selves, the life that Shawnessy only dreams of writing. Raintree County, as some critics have pointed out, becomes that paradoxical creation, an epic about the impossibility of writing an epic. It's the novel of a life and a people that stands in for the epic poem its own hero would have written, had he been able.
     In the novel, Lockridge thus undercuts his own sense of entitlement and special destiny. Shawnessy is repeatedly chastened--by nature and circumstance, and by the fact that there are other people in the world. Yet Lockridge's own lucky exemption from literal tragedy is enabling for the artist in him--he must "lift the soul," in Coleridge's phrase, to create through empathy what he has not shared.


The novel's most vivid character is not Shawnessy but Professor Jerusalem Webster Stiles. He was initially the spawn of Shawnessy himself. He made his first appearance, same name and same costume, in one of Shawnessy's dreams in the abandoned novel, American Lives. He and Shawnessy share the initials JWS. Lockridge asks in effect, What if, in addition to the plurality of his inner selves, I create for Shawnessy an alter ego who challenges him every inch of the way?
     As elsewhere, there is no single real-life counterpart to the Perfessor. Lockridge had many cynic-skeptics among his friends: scientist Malcolm Correll takes a dim view of religious and metaphysical moonshine, sophisticated Cloise Crane argues a dark determinism, international businessman and adventurer Curtis Lamorey accepts no wooden nickels, Quaker pacifist Larry Wylie is skeptical of religious dogma and militaristic flag-waving, economist and poet Donald Blankertz has a world-weary suspicion of claims to heroic motivation, and historian Steve Tryon finds much about American history that gives us little reason to cheer. Correll told me that in quirky mannerism and physical bearing--a "huge vivid insect," tall, thin, angular, black-haired, with a malacca cane substituted for a baton--the Perfessor owes much to BHS orchestral conductor Fred Sharp. Some other pedagogues may add a trait or two. Lockridge told his wife that the Perfessor, like many of his other characters, was a composite.
     I think, though, that the Perfessor is deep-seated in Lockridge's own personality. The satiric voice developed from high school days on. In degree of virtuosity it was dominant. With something like the division of labor one finds in Byron--between the heroic quester Childe Harold and the satiric narrator of Don Juan--Shawnessy and Stiles conduct a dialogue throughout the novel and test contrarieties in the author who created them both.
     Similarly, the dialogue of Castorp and Settembrini in The Magic Mountain impressed him greatly. "It's like a symphony," he said to his wife after reading Mann's novel in 1943. Despite its "time-tranced existence" and portrait of European life in decay, it doesn't fall into negation. "Living is dying, and smells like it too," Lockridge noted, paraphrasing Hans Castorp, "but life keeps the form through change of substance. . . Life, its tremendous hovering instability, and yet an inner principle always controlling and generating form. A pullulation, something called flesh and becoming form, beauty, a lofty image, and yet all the time the essence of sensuality and desire." In the dialogue of Raintree County, Lockridge tries to give Shawnessy the upper hand over the Perfessor. His hero argues the continuance of life amid instability and negation.
     In unpublished notes growing out of his earlier novel, Lockridge speaks of the Perfessor as a philologist, a Pagan Easterner who transplants Classicism to the Midwest in a quaintly "Latinized America." He's a latter-day Hermes, messenger of the Gods to Pedee Academy, Raintree County. The Perfessor speaks "the word Latin, sonorous, reverberant, the word capable of becoming a thing in itself, the word containing a kind of purple, stiff vitality, the word a tool of inhibition and reflection." The spirited classicism of Raintree County is Americanized, for though the novel invokes all the great epics from Homer to Joyce, Lockridge is attempting an American epic. In this largely Christian culture, classical myth and literature have an anachronistic gentility. But they have bearing on us still and the Perfessor is their messenger.
     In the flexible mythic overlay of the novel, he takes on more sinister roles as well. He is the Grand Inquisitor, the Mysterious Stranger, Mephistopheles. When he departs on the night train "the glare from the furnace showed a long, thin body in a soiled white suit, a face old and cunning, black eyes shining through pince-nez glasses."
     A master of outrageous utterance, the Perfessor satirizes what Raintree County holds dear and does so with such gusto that he thrives on the targeted fatuities. He has neither a reformer's hope nor the animus of a severe moralist. Some of his pronouncements--for instance, that "Religion's a vast ritual of remorse for the unhappy discovery of pain and death"--flummoxed the American clergy in 1948.
     In religion he's an agnostic, in politics a Marxist, in natural history a Darwinian, in psychology a Hobbesian and pre-Freudian, in personal morals a sexual opportunist (who, however, rarely gets any), in metaphysics a determinist, in history a debunker--and, for all this, a loyal friend to Shawnessy, his best student, whom he enormously likes.
     Theirs is a relationship of mutual need. When the Perfessor is about to be lynched for having absconded with a juiceless preacher's succulent young wife, Shawnessy outruns the mob to tip him off. And when Shawnessy is himself about to be tarred, feathered, and falsely accused of adultery with a local Waycross feminist, the Perfessor confronts the mob led by a preacher. After helping unmask the Rev. Lloyd G. Jarvey, who has indulged in some adultery of his own that day, he "rapped the Preacher sharply on the head with his cane or jabbed him in the seat of the trousers. So doing, he had appeared to ship the whole struggling mass through the gates, which he promptly slammed to."
     Farce has its allegorical meaning in Raintree County. The Perfessor, with his enlightened skepticism, routs the myopic preacher, whose name echoes Lord God Jehovah. The novel challenges Old Testament authoritarianism, as well as New Testament literalism. As Lockridge writes of Henry Adams, the Perfessor has the "tenacity of genius." Yet like Adams's his vision is inadequate.
     The Perfessor's limitation is grounded in a personal tragedy, which Lockridge withholds until late in the novel, confronting only there one of the most personally troubling of the "what if's." Late in the day, Stiles tells Shawnessy, "My father had died before I was old enough to remember him. When I was only ten years old, my mother died. In that death, Jerusalem Webster Stiles knew the secret of life--which is death--and never after added to his wisdom though he added to his words. And with that act, also, he left Raintree County and went East, where he had roots. Now, as you know, he came back to Raintree County when he was a young man, but he never came back home. He learned early, with the bitterness of the homeless child, that the earth cares nothing for our grief, and that even our mother who cared for us in life cares nothing for us in death. We care for her and keep her image alive in our brief world of memory and grief, but she doesn't care for us any longer. She has forgotten us. She doesn't remember our face. . . This is the autobiography of Jerusalem Webster Stiles, which may be said to have ended when he was ten years old."
     Lockridge knew Freud's essay, "Mourning and Melancholia" and in an unpublished note on the Perfessor's psychology speaks of "the infantile and unadjusted grief for the loss of one's mother." He knew that grief can turn pathological and that one must work through it.
     Shawnessy hopes to overcome the terrible force of the perfessor's utterance "by a myth of homecoming and a myth of resurrection. . . Grief is the most beautiful garland given to love." But his memory shifts back to the death of his own mother in 1877, which had left him bereft, with only a half-written rejected manuscript, a guidebook to the Centennial Exposition, some old photographs and crumpled telegrams, and a "mothy personal legend" about the raintree.
     For both men the death of fathers is barely registered, while the death of mothers is a personal and metaphysical calamity. Lockridge's inspiration for his novel going back to Paris days was deeply interwoven with his sense of his mother's mortality. The novel is partly grounded in a kind of anticipatory loss. Elsie Lockridge's confidence that the dead are "living on" is not shared by her son. But on another level I think Lockridge identifies with the Perfessor. He may have carried with him from earliest childhood the sense of already having lost his mother.
     This "what if" is among the most difficult of all for Lockridge to ask: what is left after our mothers die, after we become dead to them?
     That he asks this question enhances the probability that the writing of his novel is itself a working through of grief--of grief for all that has been and could be lost. The Perfessor's unremittent grief is portrayed as pathological. Thus, Lockridge attempts, through the catharsis and self-mastery of writing, to overcome his own novel's pervasive atmosphere of loss, to overcome the death nausea that befell him while visiting Messick graveyard with his mother in the summer of 1941. The novel is both an expression and an organizing of his emotional life.
     But there's an even more calamitous loss for Shawnessy, if not for the Perfessor: the death of Nell. Though occurring chronologically before the death of Shawnessy's mother, Nell's death in childbirth--she is pregnant by Garwood--is narrated only in the novel's final pages, as Shawnessy confronts in memory his greatest loss.
     Why it is greatest will take us to the heart of the warmly expressed values of Raintree County, which has been something other than a long day's journey into night.
     Lockridge's novel is a search for sustaining values in the face of desolation and death. Without embarrassment it asks large questions. The largest is, What survives the ruins of time? It's a question both personal and metaphysical. The Perfessor would seem to have the edge in the great debate, scoring point after point. But Shawnessy gamely holds on in a narrative where sexual vitality and mythic vision contend as best they can with mortality and cultural decline.


* * *


Sex is an idol in Raintree County. In the Day episodes the menfolk gather around a pasture to watch a white bull named Jupiter mount a heifer. At the same time the myopic Reverend Jarvey arrives at Lorena Passifee's to administer one of those orgasmic "godshouts" the local ladies are always lining up for, begging for multiple conversions. Jarvey is Zeus (Jupiter) in pursuit of Io and Europa, or Poseidon's bull mounting Pasiphaè. Their coupling, enhanced by dandelion wine, will be observed through the window by neighborhood children, just as the mating of bull and heifer is furtively watched by feminist Evelina Brown from her tower window.
     There's a difference, though: what is blind and indiscriminate in the white bull is comic hypocrisy in the Preacher, who is finally undone by sex. Subjected to various frocks and hoopskirts, sex is life in this novel, sex permeates Raintree County from conception to the grave.
     Growing up in pre-Kinsey-report Bloomington, Lockridge felt both the fecundity of his natural habitat and the puritan restraints of Hoosier culture. For all her advanced notions in other respects, his mother was a Christian Scientist for whom, as Mary Baker Eddy says, "no more sympathy exists between the flesh and Spirit than between Belial and Christ."
     He was greatly interested in sex, curious to hear from his friends about their sexual initiations, enjoying the humor of local folk--Jim Pennington's jokes, for instance--and reading widely on the subject. At the same time, he postponed his own sexual initiation probably until marriage, was faithful to his wife, and was rarely far from the family hearth. Earlier he had backed away when women seemed to be pressuring him sexually, less I think from puritanism than from the weight of meaning he placed on sex.
     He was heterosexual but might now agree there was a homoerotic component in those strong male friendships. The ritual of male bonding in the bull-and-heifer scene--a nineteenth-century equivalent to the stag film--is as close as his novel comes to homoeroticism on an otherwise panoramic screen.
I think it was pretty audacious for a young Hoosier from a studious, rather prudish household--a former member of Epworth League, secretary of YPB, and President of a consortium of Indiana Hi-Y's--to publish a novel that dwelt on the erotic life, as some reviewers complained, more than any previous American novel. He was not some objective sociologist of sex correcting our pious misreadings of ourselves. Rather, he was a nervy writer working up his materials to give a fuller sensation of life.
     What is the meaning of sex in the novel?
     The title of Elsie Lockridge's favorite childhood book, Barriers Burned Away, becomes a metaphor of the erotic life. The great sentimental wish of sex is to burn all barriers away in total unmediated ecstasy. But "Raintree County was itself the barrier of form imposed upon a stuff of longing, life-jet of the river." The "random curve of water" contrasts with the "rectilinear stone" of the Courthouse, and would ideally be "the pathway of the hero of a legend, of one who rose from the Great Swamp and rode a horse of godlike appetite to the summit of Platonic forms."
     But the imposition of barriers is the only way a humanly erotic life is possible, whether as incest taboos or rituals of courtship and marriage. These barriers can be either restrictive or defining, as the various love affairs in the novel show.
     Not long after his dunking in the swamp, Johnny Shawnessy is compensated by the river, out of which a fabulous creature steps naked one day while he covertly watches. "On the left of the deepfleshed hemispheres was a brown mole, pennysized. Then as the creature half turned a moment and stretched up its arms full length in the sunlight, he saw the brightnippled breasts, the wide, smooth belly, and three gold tufts of hair." Nell Gaither has ordinarily appeared in highnecked bodice and petticoats, speaking the "evasive language" of Raintree County. Suddenly she is Venus.
     Johnny had earlier seen the Indiana landscape in the image of his mother Ellen (near-anagram of Nell), as a maternal earth with its riddle of origins reinscribing the Oedipus myth. But now "it had taken for its image the Venus Callipygos in exchange for Mother Eve in her figleaf."
     The novel implies that this exchange is a healthy one in the natural history of sex. It echoes Lockridge's own comparative ease in marrying Vernice Baker and beginning his own family. The Perfessor in his grief over his mother's death has not resolved the Oedipal predicament.
     Thus, Shawnessy's greater grief is not for his mother but for Nell, the river goddess and local girl who first awakened him to life as desire. This loss is tragic, while the other is natural and necessary.
     For Shawnessy and Lockridge, desire enhances the sensation of life even because it attempts always to transcend its own roots in vacancy and loss. The novel conveyed both the vitality and poignancy of desire to a generation of young readers who still remember elusive, doomed Nell rising naked from the riverbank when they've forgotten everything else.
     Desire draws its nourishment from our connection with the biological landscape. The land is always there, with its river of life and Great Swamp. Emblem of female genitalia, the Swamp is the home of our nostalgia, as well as our ultimate tomb. Geography recapitulates anatomy in Raintree County, even down to the book jacket, where the living body of Nell is seen in the lush contours of the county map. Though dead and buried she survives in the landscape. The abandoned Danwebster graveyard lying next to the river gives Shawnessy an overwhelming sense of life, overrun as it is by grasshoppers, gravemyrtle, wild carrot, blackberries and poison ivy.
     Corruption of this sense of place threatens our collective vitality. Called an "ecological novel written before its time," Raintree County warned of our loss of connection with this biological planet. There's been plenty of evidence that Lockridge's environmental instincts were right--that in "mining and stripping and gutting and draining, and whoring and ravaging and rending the beautiful earth of America," we would lay waste our powers.
     I take some consolation in the fact that he didn't survive to see the east pastures off High Street give way to shopping malls, his old boy scout camp lose out to the freeway, and the streams and gardens in and around Bloomington polluted by Westinghouse's PCBs.
     Lockridge finds meaning and value in our fierce attachments, even when they retard, wound, or destroy us. Resisting the Perfessor's maxim that "Narcissus was your only honest lover," Shawnessy thinks our attachments extend the self beyond itself. They also link us to desires, fixations, and taboos rooted in our biological evolution, before custom and the rectangular county lines imposed. And they have human meaning. Tragedy, severing the objects of our love, ironically reaffirms meaning and value in Raintree County.



Other relationships in the novel portray the perseverance of sex and love amid calamity and sorrow. And they portray how we must seek love beyond family romance, beyond the powerful field of parental domination. The attachments that make us human can also make us ill.
     Some female characters have more trouble with their fathers than Shawnessy ever had with his mother. Lockridge wants multiple points of view, and except for Shawnessy makes them all female, as if to shift the balance of sensibility somewhat. We see some episodes through the eyes of Shawnessy's daughter Eva, modeled on Elsie Shockley Lockridge as a young girl. We see others through the eyes of his second wife Esther Root, modeled on Emma Rhoton Shockley, and of Evelina Brown, a feminist who is a take-off on those Minerva Society women at New Harmony. With this profusion of "E" names and women with green eyes, Lockridge suggests the ubiquity of Eve.
     Eva idealizes her father and loathes herself for it. She can never be worthy of him. Lockridge narrates his mother's childhood jealousy, competitiveness, self-loathing, aggression, and nightmares. He doesn't narrate her life beyond the age of twelve--her sexual development is permanently arrested by the novel's time frame--but he confronts the living grownup Eva in his own mother, who half a century later still worships that father, with implications, as we have seen, for her own marriage and child-rearing. The novel is dedicated to his mother. But Lockridge would later feel that in portraying her youthful passions he had exploited and harmed her.
Hollywood deleted Eva, as well as Esther and Evelina, and made its movie around the character of Susanna Drake, who is haunted by her father's ghost in a different way. Lockridge once again has both used and altered family sources. In 1861 John Shockley, then twenty-two, married Susannah Duke, just approaching seventeen. A photograph of her shows no particular resemblance to Elizabeth Taylor, alas. Her father, originally from North Carolina, was a colorfully brutish Henry County dirt farmer, thrice-married with fifteen children.
     The Duke brothers hated know-it-all John Shockley, and played nasty practical jokes on him. John and Susannah lived together for only three months before they separated, she pregnant by then. In divorce proceedings brought in 1864, he complained that she refused to sleep or live with him, and she complained of same, her lawyer adding that "he was a disbeliever in a married life, that the vow taken in a marriage ceremony is of no moral force and not binding on any one . . . and that he belonged to the so called Progressive Society which holds to all the isms and cisms of modern fanatics and religion and morality." Susannah won custody and John promptly enlisted in the army. She lived briefly in Mississippi with relatives before returning to Henry County, possibly insane by this time, and died in 1877 at the age of thirty-three. Their son James lived until 1919, a Mississippi farmer.
     Lockridge had to improve on all this. What if the lowly Dukes get upscaled to Southern aristocracy and Susanna Drake is made two years John Shawnessy's senior, a beautiful olive-skinned nymphomaniac? She has arrived from Louisiana, taken up residence in an elegant house in the county seat Freehaven, and bestows the laurels on Johnny when he wins the 1859 Fourth of July footrace against Flash Perkins. Later that day, very drunk, he chases her into the swamp near Paradise Lake where on a grassy mound they make love, the dust of yellow flowers from a tree falling on his shoulders and her black hair.
     Lockridge counterpoints sex this time with journalistic accounts of a disastrous balloon ascension, a perilous crossing of Niagara Falls on a tightrope, and a tourist promo on the "balsamic odors and blue skies" beneath the Mason-Dixon Line.
     Promptly evicted from Eden, Johnny is forced to marry Susanna and journeys with her to New Orleans--as epic heroes have journeyed to Hades--where he sees slavery first-hand and intervenes in the ax murder of a young black. He is otherwise well-entertained, rather like Lord Byron in his Regency society phase. Then back to Raintree County, where he watches helplessly as Susanna sinks into psychosis and eventual suicide.
     Although the causes differ, the description of Susanna's psychosis and Shawnessy's sense of guilt contain uncanny prophecies of Lockridge's fate. Probably on a level beneath his own awareness, he did intuit his own vulnerability. But I would otherwise call this foreshadowing a dramatic irony that highlights how one can know about mental disorder, perhaps anticipate it, yet be baffled when it is time to confront the snakes oneself. The Snake Pit isn't the only family novel that portrays mental illness.
     In the days following his indiscretion under the raintree, Shawnessy feels as if a thousand eyes are watching him. He dreads the daily newspaper, expects it to publicize his crime, feels only greater dread for every day's reprieve. When he receives a letter from Susanna informing him, falsely, of her pregnancy, "the words said what he had always feared, what he had known would come to pass . . . Someone would come in and find him leaning insanely against this wall and would know that he was guilty of something." He feels helpless, caught by fate as time brings to birth dark events seeded years earlier--and he thinks of hopping a train to "California, on the Golden Shore!"
     Shame before his mother's eyes brings on the catastrophe. She has received a letter from an informer. He knows then that he will marry Susanna. The bitter words they exchange are "merely the truncated mouthings of the Oedipean agony." She could never understand "the young man's pagan world of beauty and desire" and relents in her censure only when she fears he's about to throw himself under a train. He sees his fate--marrying Susanna instead of Nell--as a "Great Betrayal," as bringing harm to those he most loves. He hopes somehow to clear "his honor and good name before the County." Nell sensibly berates him for having too great a conscience in these matters, as Vernice Lockridge will try to talk good sense into her husband.
     With some detective work, in a novel full of riddles, Shawnessy uncovers the origin of Susanna's psychosis. Her father James had taken a mulatto mistress, Henrietta Courtney, to the virtual exclusion of his wife, and Susanna is probably the mulatto's daughter. As a racist she fears her blood is tainted. In some unpublished notes on Susanna's psychology, Lockridge makes it explicit that in her self-punishing nymphomania she is identifying with Henrietta and other black mistresses of her white father, compulsively asking that the sexual subjugation be repeated. She is a "black Helen," an emblem of the Old South, one race enslaved by the other. Slavery is "the mental illness of America" as well as its original sin.
     Susanna's decline is marked by depression and paranoia. She spends hours alone in her bedroom. She imagines conspiracies everywhere--"they" are all plotting against her. She loses interest in sex, at least with Shawnessy. Talking about her problems proves less than cathartic, and Shawnessy, not handling things very well, would rather not listen. "He couldn't imagine a greater indignity than to go before Raintree County and confess that he was married to a crazy woman." It seemed to him "that he was groping helplessly outside his own world and trying to get back into it. He must not give up. He must go on bearing the burden of the whole implacably connected universe of himself." Susanna is eventually a suicide, who diverts attention at one key moment by falsely claiming that she is visiting her parents. Again, these are uncanny prophecies of the author fate.
     Shawnessy's second wife Esther is ashamed in turn at the probability that she is part Miami Indian. Esther like Susanna is dominated by her father. Gideon Root's fierce love for her is close to incestuous and seems greater than Shawnessy's own. In a scene the precise opposite of Joyce's "Evelina," literal-minded and humorless Esther suddenly acknowledges the hidden spring of her will, refuses to move out west with her father after all, and runs impetuously to join Mr. Shawnessy. Root's hands will always be on her, torn as she is between two worlds, and she is in effect seeking out another father figure.
     But she still shows Lockridge's affirmative reading of human freedom--more affirmative at least than Joyce's in his short story. By dint of will and desire, we can sometimes free ourselves of dark entrapments, burning some of those barriers away and forming new structures for our lives grounded in other human attachments. Where Susanna and Shawnessy found themselves caught up in Aeschylean tragedy, Esther and he take up residence in a domestic Victorian novel, complete with gingerbread house, where marriage and family will survive.
     Desire in Raintree County thus takes some dark turns before finding a compensatory haven. To reach Paradise Lake "one had to pass by the graveyard and the vanished town of Danwebster." Yet for all his ordeal Shawnessy isn't in paradise. Clearly there's been a chastening of the impassioned young man dreaming of lush-loined Nell on the Shawmucky River. Esther never even calls him by his first name; he is always "Mr. Shawnessy." The fate of desire is the institution of the family, brought forth in sorrow "for the crime of lustful love." There's both loss and gain in this, and Shawnessy by the novel's end has seen that boundaries and barriers, not wholly burned away, have given form and meaning to eros.
     And the land is still there for Shawnessy, a full presence as always--the river, swamp, and tree, the rock at the limit of the land, and Raintree County itself, which gives us life and will reclaim us in the end. The warmth of our emotional life--the deepest element of a biological heritage rooted in the land--doesn't necessarily diminish, even as it takes forms other than erotic fever.
     Lockridge was himself a family man whose feeling for his mother was strong and whose authorial freedom and identity were imposed on unwittingly by his father. Through his reading of Freud and more so through personal experience, he knew the threat of family romance. Writing is a therapy; the various sexual relationships in the novel show him working through Oedipean entrapment and still earlier torments. He had already contended with them well enough in his personal life. At a rather early age he found his living Nell Gaither--not having to settle for an Esther--and set up a family of his own.
     Thus he sacrificed the youthful vagabondage of Paris days for domesticity, in a warmer marriage than his father or Grandfather Shockley had experienced. Faithful Husband, provider, and father of four, he found in domesticity the structures that regulated the currents of a fearfully strong emotional life--a life he continued to express through fiction.
     And like Shawnessy he had a resource beyond eros to sustain him. Mythic consciousness--grounded less in feeling than in imagination--is another human power in Lockridge's novel answering to the ruins of time.


* * *


As a young child, Rossie was touring the old cemetery at Frankfurt, Kentucky with his father and asked, "Are all the people buried here great men?"
     When father and son played their homemade game of heroes "The Rossiteers," their list included Ulysses, Hercules, Atlas, Helen of Troy, Theseus, Jason, Mercury, Bellerophon, and many others, mythical and historical, who crop up again in Raintree County.
     The novel is an often comic testing of criteria, as Shawnessy from boyhood on ponders who and what is great. His purported grandfather Thomas Carlyle asks the same questions in Of Heroes and Hero-Worship, with his own list of heroes, including Shakespeare. Johnny Shawnessy hears of many dubious candidates for Greatest Living American, from James K. Polk to Henry Clay to Zachary Taylor. Lincoln comes off as more likely. Raintree County is somewhere between heroic and anti-heroic fiction, as Leonard Lutwak has noted. It doesn't dismiss heroes altogether but redefining their nature and mission in an era when the river gods have been chased away by freight trains.
     Some readers may find annoying the dreams of glory entertained by an adolescent who silently aspires to be Shakespeare: Johnny is a high-flyer like Bellerophon and Icarus, who hungers for beauty and greatness. His hopes are sometimes downright messianic, as he imagines himself a prophet bringing a new religion into an America still weighed down with Old Testament and other moribund deities. Grandiose vision coexists with his unpushy good nature.
     The narrator's language is often a sympathetic echoing of these dreams in the earlier portions of the novel. But irony is at work even there, and
Shawnessy's early poetic effusions are meant to show that the Shakespearean gift isn't in evidence just yet. some are candidates for "Lockridge's Leaden Treasury." And well before the novel's end, Shawnessy is humbled, no longer thinking himself a new Shakespeare, let alone Jesus. After losing a local election he feels he has "been rejected by his people and called a false prophet."
     He isn't broken, though. What he salvages is a vision to challenge the Perfessor's cynicism--a vision rather lovely and very fragile.
     Lockridge calls on much of what he most values in fashioning this vision for Shawnessy--words, legends, maps, antiquities, dreams, philosophy. He puts to good use the Illustrated Historical Atlas of Henry County that he took from Emma Shockley's house, revising it somewhat as the main prop in the Day episodes. Senator Garwood B. Jones has heard that the engraver, about to lose his job, introduced pornographic images into the Illustrated Historical Atlas of Raintree County. Only a single copy was said to have been printed before detection, with such images as a lady going into a dry goods store stark naked except for a parasol, and a bull "showing prize-winning form in an intimate domestic scene." Moreover, "John J. Jubal's palatial home in Beardstown features an ithyphallic Aztec god instead of a cast-iron triton. The sign reading Burke House on Freehaven's leading hotel has been altered to something more pungent. And Jesus Christ surrounded by the twelve Apostles is getting ready to jump to Zion from the observation platform of the house on page 61."
     Shawnessy obliges the Senator and manages early in the day to retrieve the copy, kept under lock and key at the Historical Museum. Off and on throughout the day they and others pour disappointedly over its pages, finding no such variants. Only in the final minutes before the Perfessor's departure does Shawnessy think of looking in the most obvious place: the main entrance to the Court House on page five. In amazement they find a naked Adam and Eve tasting the forbidden fruit. "With what an exquisite feeling for paradox, an unknown artist had substituted his symbolic statue of Edenic rebellion for the stern yet necessary lady with the scales, whose upright form had ruled the conscience of Raintree County from the beginning!"
     The old myths still have the power to subvert and give new life to our sober constructs, but the myth-making power itself needs constant rejuvenation. "Americans have rewritten the old epics and have added myths of their own. From the Greeks, we've taken the plural gods, the rape of beauty, the long war, the wandering and the return. From the Hebrew and Christian myth, we've taken the lost garden and the divine man," says Shawnessy.
     Raintree County is itself a rewrite of that Atlas, with renditions of the subversive scenes its own characters hoped to find. And it attempts to add some myths of its own. A few years before the vogue of archetypal criticism in America, Lockridge has his hero speak of America as "a new Eden," whose people are "the new mythmakers."
     Unknown artists like Shawnessy add to our sustaining mythology by localizing and revising the old myths. Tree worship is found in many ancient cultures, as Frazer documents in The Golden Bough, and is prominent in the Genesis myth. Shawnessy's raintree is a mutation of an ancient archetype, combining trees of life and knowledge in the sacred grove. It reflects the local culture's impulse to seek its own origin, to explain its own name in a county where no raintrees have yet been found. The legend claims some historical grounding--perhaps Johnny Appleseed planted it--yet is anchored in human imagination and our need for myths of miraculous origin.
     Shawnessy won't look too closely at his own myth, and the Perfessor reinforces this, saying that if they made an excursion and actually found the raintree, "we'd sit there and have a couple sandwiches and after an afternoon of contemplating the tree, we'd go back home with sunburnt noses and ants in our pantses, no wiser than before." The Perfessor is a comparative mythologist who could write The Golden Bough himself, as the narrator hints, but who sees through literal claims and thinks the age of myth is drawing to a close. "I wish I could believe in sacred places. . . But beauty and the gods can't survive the era of Darwin and the Dynamo. All lovely things are old things."
     Shawnessy's reply draws on much of Lockridge's own philosophy of language and literature, in the making since high school days. It owes much also to Ross Lockridge Senior, who could conduct a group of folks out into some featureless cow pasture and convey a brooding sense of place by evoking a legend that still haunts that ground. Language is a direct linkage with our origins, our own etymology. As a boy, Shawnessy felt he "had sprung into being from words in an immense blackbordered book on the parlor table." He and other poets are in search of "dawnwords" that would return us to the primitive garden of the race, "back to the parent Word." But most words are like palimpsests, layered over deceptively and in need of the poet's delving. The language of poets dissolves the distinction between words and things, ideally giving us a more intimate sense of reality than our own random experience with it and putting us in touch with our aboriginal selves.
     Shawnessy believes in miracles in the sense that the raintree is "no more nor less miraculous than any other tree--and all trees are miraculous. . . Every county in America has its secret place and every American life its Delphic cave." Being itself is miraculous--"the world is a perpetual creation" in which all selves participate. "Each Self is a Universe, and no universe is possible without God."
     In a sense the Perfessor has the novel's last word because it is he who earlier dubs Shawnessy an "endlessly courageous dreamer." Lockridge's conception of the dreamer turns out to be something other than moonshiner. The dreamer is the mythmaker, and in the social sphere the mythmaker has legislative powers. In dreams begin responsibilities. Dreamer-novelist Lockridge wants his book to be read by Americans because "it will do them good--goddam them."
     Shawnessy has been aware of the mythic texture of his own life, interpreting it as he goes. In beating Flash Perkins in the footrace, he lives out the myth described by Frazer that one hero must usurp another, often killing him. In making love to Susanna under the raintree and paying for it mightily, he lives out the Genesis myth. In returning from the war after having been reported dead, he lives out the myth of Lazarus. In being rejected by his own people after a period in the wilderness, he lives out the myth of Christ, almost crucified again by indignant local townsfolk led by Jarvey. It's up to the Perfessor to point out that Shawnessy has lived an American myth, Hawthorne's Great Stone Face. In his stay-at-home decency he has proved to be the hero of Raintree County.
     Caught up in these myths that interpret his life, does Shawnessy have any heroic power of his own? It's clear the narrator doesn't grant this single person much direct influence beyond the classroom. Rather, he's America's representative dreamer, who has maintained his sanity while failing as an individual writer. He sees himself as part of a larger collective enterprise, the creative building of the Republic throughout the ages.
     The Perfessor narrates at length his amiable "History of Mankind": e.g., "The female of the species was beginning to lose the hair around her vestigial tail because the male of the species liked it better that way and chased the ones with the bare behinds. This is called Natural Selection."
     Shawnessy replies with "The Legend of Raintree County," a fable-like account of a child's growth into mythic awareness. It lacks the Perfessorial punch, but the moral of it, as interpreted by Shawnessy and also by Lockridge in an unpublished note, is that the greatest human institutions are grounded in fictions that have been made real through collective human will. "From this premise all begins: that science and all the world are unavoidably human. Everything exists by the authority of that sturdy republican, the Self. The world in which we live lives in us. To look outward at the farthest star is to look inward into oneself. We are merely exploring our immense cupboard," says Shawnessy.
     Lockridge adds that "what we call primeval nature, Eden, is already completely humanized. . . The very conception of that which is primitive [is] a rather poetic human notion. Even the so-called War of the Species is not really a war, the combat for survival is not a real combat. Darwin makes it so." Human institutions like the Republic, History, and Science are all human projections rich in metaphor that attempt to rescue us from chaos and old night.
     Strictly speaking, these institutions begin as illusions. The trick is to dream better, to purge the world of the bad dreams of slavery, genocide, and environmental rape--to dream the myth of freedom as prelude to investing it literally in our institutions. This is a radical mythic humanism or cultural idealism, not unlike what the modern critic Northrop Frye would later elaborate. Shawnessy's hope is that our best imaginings can become literal, worked out in history and culture. For better or worse we think up our institutions; they are not inevitable in the nature of things. The great human illusions "were created by centuries of struggle."
     In his own small schoolteacherly way, but with the prophetic vision of the poet, Shawnessy contributes to the dream of the Republic. The hero isn't precisely this single person Shawnessy; it is the collective of people who help make and sustain myth in an age of its dimming, and Shawnessy in this novel is but their representative visionary. The age--Shawnessy's and by implication our own--is in decline through a failure of imagination.
     The Perfessor calls this a "beautiful and brave fable." Its vulnerability is everywhere registered by him. In an era of disillusionment, where is any evidence the dreamer is prevailing? Where's the executive will for all this? Doesn't a mechanical universe reclaim the whole experiment in the end? Lockridge was bringing his novel to a close just as the world press was peering into the Nazi ovens. After this, how entertain Olympian hopes for the human race?
     Lockridge's hope for his own novel is that in evoking the old names and singing the myth of the Republic, he can move Americans to return to origins, to revere the nourishing earth and democratic vistas. In a grander way and speaking not only to Hoosiers, he hopes to fulfill the dreams of his own father. Like Whitman, he writes with the conviction, first enunciated in Longinus, that the end of art is not only to teach and delight but to transport.
     But Raintree County is after all only a book, published for a season like other books, and how much can one have riding on a book? When Shawnessy is branded a false prophet, he picks up and goes on with his scribbling and schoolteaching. Could Lockridge be as resilient as his own hero?


* * *


What is this book? Lockridge made fun of his father's literary sensibility, which he thought hadn't advanced beyond a fondness James Fenimore Cooper. Yet Raintree County shows just as much the imprint of father as of mother. She had considerably more to do with the cast of characters, ironically he with matters of vision and literary form. I'll make some large claims for the novel that have no necessary connection with value judgments--claims I think true even if the novel were to be deemed at last a large-scale fiasco.
     One reviewer complained that Lockridge should never have been permitted by his editor to retell the whole of Hawthorne's "Great Stone Face." It slipped by her that the entire novel is based on this story. Lockridge does his best to make things fairly obvious, by contrast at least with much modernist fiction. Clearly he doesn't succeed with all readers.
     I'd call this an incorporative more than an allusive novel, and contrast it with Ulysses. As any teacher of the great novel knows, Joyce relies on his reader's familiarity with everything in western culture from Agenbite of Inwit to modern Irish street slang. Even before the semester's first bomb scare, it's clear in any American undergraduate class that his confidence is misplaced--happily for the teacher, who now has something to talk about. Much discussion of modernist texts must be taken up with footnoting allusions. Joyce would have alluded once or twice to Hawthorne's tale and left it to us to spot it, then grasp its significance.
     But the lament out of which Raintree County emerges is precisely that the wealth of western myth, history, and literature is growing dim to modern memory. It must be invoked and recited. Our hope is in memory.
     Recited. This is where Ross Lockridge Senior begins to leave his mark. When Shawnessy meets a naked woman on a slab in the post office, the narrator makes clear the incorporation of the Oedipus story: "She lay on her stomach, chin propped on hands. . . . Her eyes were a great cat's," and she asks Shawnessy, "What creature is it that in the morning of its life--." If we are trained to take pleasure in spotting allusions, we'll say, "Oh my god, this is too obvious!" But Lockridge means it to be obvious. A reader on another park bench may never have heard of the Riddle of the Sphinx.
     Ross Lockridge Senior would tell his children, grandchildren, and Hoosier audiences all the old stories from scratch, as if everyone were hearing them for the first time. When his son invokes the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, he creates a context in which the story of Atlas and Hercules can be briefly told. Not counting on his reader's intimate knowledge of Frazer, he has the Perfessor tell the story of the Golden Bough and the woodland lake at Nemi. And when Reverend Jarvey is telling "The Oldest Story in the World," Lockridge has him recite substantial passages from the Book of Genesis.
     This incorporative method extends to the texts of American history and well beyond. Shawnessy's great work for the July Fourth festivities is his organization of the Grand Patriotic Program, the whole flyer for which is printed in the novel. General Jackson reads the Declaration of Independence, portions of which are quoted. Many years earlier, Shawnessy first read the Gettysburg Address in a newspaper while he was visiting a Chattanooga whorehouse with Flash Perkins and the Perfessor. Lockridge prints most of the Address in counterpoint to Flash Perkins's singing: "If you got a gal that's a mite tew fat, You kin melt her down with a dance like that!" Flash dances a jig with whores while the Perfessor recites obscenely revised classical texts.
     If this isn't quite what Ross Senior has in mind for these masterpieces of eloquence, his son makes up for it. After all, Shawnessy takes schoolchildren on historical tours. He was "on the spot" where history was made, from the burning of Atlanta to the assassination of Lincoln to the great railroad strike of 1877. When Senator Jones calls Lincoln a "clownish country lawyer" whom Booth made great, Shawnessy intones that there are few hard facts of history but "there are some words in the right context. Perhaps the office of the historian is to rebuild an accurate context around the few great words that survive."
     Lockridge builds imaginary contexts around great words that have survived--from history, literature, philosophy, and religion to journalism, folklore, and folksong. Like his father, he hopes to reanimate them with words of his own.
     He gourmandizes other texts with the same gusto he brought to Madame Pernot's dinner table. There are so many sources, "running the gamut of the so-called Great Books ancient and modern," that he thinks the question of comparative influence "pretty well adds out." But he does single out The Republic, the Bible, the Homeric epics, the Greek tragedies, Shakespeare's plays, Hugo, Flaubert, Tolstoi, Emerson, Whitman, Wolfe, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Joyce, and Mann. He should have added Frazer and Freud. Somewhat more off-beat titles leave their imprint--Uncle Tom's Cabin, John Brown's Body, Barriers Burned Away, the Elsie series, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Before the Footlights & Behind the Scenes, Ten Nights in a Barroom, Through the Dark Continent, The Life of Jesus, The Education of Henry Adams, Gone with the Wind, and especially his father's rejected novel of the Old Northwest, Black Snake and White Rose.
     Raintree County devours a plurality of such authors and titles, of literary and non-literary genres, without being particularly bookish. Again, what is it?
     Lockridge himself thought the genre problematic. Early into its composition he reflected on its style, thinking it more an epic than a novel. But he goes on to surmise that it's "a new form, an art form mingling the characteristics of many previous genres, drama, poetry, novel, short story, legend, dream, logomyth."
     Many other genres and subgenres that criss-cross his book could be added: satire, parody, romance, pastoral, lyric, tragedy, elegy, comedy, farce, gothic fiction, sentimental fiction, Bildungsroman, historical fiction, agrarian fiction, realistic fiction, detective fiction, the dime cowboy novel, the fairy tale, the folk tale, folk dialect, song, prophecy, oratory, scientific and pseudo-scientific treatise, natural history, memoir, autobiography, confession, travel literature, philosophical dialogue, exegesis, epistle, anthropological and sociological discourse, aphorism, essay, journalism, cinema, the photo album, the county atlas, pornography, blasphemy, cartography, the outline, the testimonial, the riddle, the variant. (In this biography I've tried to imitate his method somewhat.)
     Some critics, spotting the hand of other writers and the imprint of one or another literary form, have called the novel "derivative." Lockridge wants it to be obvious that his novel is derived--from a multitude of sources. He wants the reader to recognize them. This is his method. Joyce and Wolfe will be most frequently mentioned by reviewers, more so than Whitman. He feels he's incorporated these authors among many others and gone his own way. Where in the House of Literature, he will ask, do you find anything quite like my book?
     It's not only the formal variety--it's the scope of the thing and what he hopes to embody. He tells the Houghton Mifflin publicity people that, among other impossibilities, he wishes to "express the American Myth" in an American version of The Republic, to dramatize "the vast dualism between materialism and idealism," to make a study "of the synoptic character of human personality," to embody the "social, anthropological, and sexual characteristics of 19th-century American life," to "provide a living document of the religious and political 'rites' of the American people" and thus incorporate American culture into one novel to an unprecedented extent.
     To this end he deliberately uses many American archetypes--the New Eden, the Frontier, the Republic, the Fall from Innocence, the Fear of Miscegenation, the character types such as the Innocent American Hero, the Dark Lady and the Light, the Capitalist, the Frontiersman, the Evangelical, the Feminist, the Statesman, the Perfessor. He revises these archetypes to make some ironic point or to individualize them. Nell Gaither may be offspring of the Good Good Girl, but she's also erotic, her pale skin has a blemish, she fools around with someone other than our hero, and makes a practical compromise in her marriage.
     All of this in a novel he hopes will be widely read for its story values--a page turner. Enough! or Too Much!
     There's now a term for this kind of thing, not yet to my knowledge applied to Raintree County. In 1957 Northrop Frye coined the term "encyclopedic form." Simply put, he means works that attempt to embody the entire life cycle and culture of a people, written by one or more scribes who presume to reach beyond the merely personal to a vision of the whole. In canonical literature, Frye alludes to the Bible, the eddas, the Mahabharata, the classical epics, the Divine Comedy, Canterbury Tales, The Fairie Queene, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, Pilgrim's Progress, Prometheus Unbound, Don Juan, Moby Dick, The Cantos, Ulysses, Finnegan's Wake, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. There is often a mélange of genres in encyclopedic works--a totality of form as well as of represented reality.
     In modern American fiction the encyclopedic work most discussed has been Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow with its internationalist perspectives and a cast of some three hundred. Others have included John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor, William Gaddis's The Recognitions, and Joseph McElroy's Women and Men.
     I'll avoid value judgments, yet make another kind of large claim that will sound inflated coming from a son of the author. It seems to me that Raintree County is the most ambitious attempt at encyclopedic form in American literature.
     Any such attempt must necessarily fail in completeness. (Aesthetic failure in greater or lesser degree is equally assured.) Where are the gays, Chicanos, and Mormons in Lockridge's novel? Where do we find a character evil enough to hint at the horrors of Dachau? Some will say the genius of American fiction is gothic, and that this novel is insufficiently gothic. And so on. The Perfessor's constant undercutting of Shawnessy's epic ambition, and Shawnessy's failure ever to complete his epic, are the narrator's own acknowledgment that such projects must always fall short.
     Still, Lockridge aspires to what his novel itself implies is an impossibility. He will write the grand work his own hero fails to write. The encyclopedic impulse has always been basic in him as in his father, who wrote a seven-volume local history for all of Indiana, not just a few corners of it. When MGM asks him to cut the City section, he will refuse; his novel is more than a pastoral. He'll incorporate--in addition to the Midwest--the East, the South, and the myth of the Western Frontier. And sex is part of life, and so are dreams, and so is disillusionment and religious doubt. He feels it all belongs in his novel.
     Some readers will say he has used the novel as a dumping ground for all he knew. But he himself criticized Benét for trying to pack too much into John Brown's Body and felt he was instead portraying that fraction of American life that represented the whole.
     Frye makes an observation telling in its implications for Ross Lockridge, Jr. Writers of encyclopedic works usually write only one such work in a lifetime. I think it follows that for the writer of encyclopedic ambition, the problem of "What next?" must be in large measure stressful. It may feel, for a time at least, as if there's nothing more to say. Might be wise to postpone such a project till the gout is setting in.


Besides encyclopedic form, there's another metaphor of modern criticism that's helpful here: Mikhail Bakhtin's "carnival." In early drafts Lockridge called a central portion of his novel "The Marketplace," and much of this Russian critic's study of Rabelais is a matter of what one finds in that part of town. In folk culture--with its pageantry, fairs, banquets, farces, parodies, curses, bodily grotesqueries, obscenities, blasphemies, vital laughter--we find the vernacular languages that challenge official language. Rabelais's great book is a vernacular rout of Ciceronian Latin. Bakhtin finds the genre of novel the great arena for representing "dialogic" struggle among various languages or discourses, all linked to their own power bases, professions, and social classes. These languages jostle one against the other and assault the official language of a particular culture.
     I'll make another claim for Raintree County: it's among the most carnivalesque of American novels. Only one critic, Darshan Maini, has so far noted this aspect of Lockridge's novel. Early on, though, Mary Jane Ward, trying to cheer her cousin up, praised the "change of style according to the mood, setting, characters etc., and it seems to me that few of the reviews I've seen have made enough of this ability to create whole vocabularies suitable to each situation."
     It's the use to which this polyphony of styles and voices is put that makes the novel carnivalesque.
     A lively subversive quality is found throughout and accounts for much of the fuss the novel caused in 1948. Fat belching Grampa Peters sits on "his big dumb behind" while a woman is screaming upstairs in labor: "Well, Jeeeeeeeeeesus God in Heaven, Dear Lord! git rid of it, sister!" At graduation exercises Johnny Shawnessy gets the usual dose of sentimental tributes, but Garwood Jones writes, "Tew hoom it may consurn: The owner of this book is wun of my closest pursonal ennumies. I hev no reluctuntz in recommending him fer enny kind of ordeenary household work inclooding ginneral carpentry (his fabreekations are noomerous and unsurpassed), but vurgins over fiftee wood dew well to keep him out of there drawers. Signed, Rube Shucks."
     As soon as the Perfessor steps off the train, he asks for the privy ("the Boylston Chair of Oratory and Rhetoric") and talks philosophy with Shawnessy while taking a crap. Public ceremonies are subverted by firecrackers under hooped skirts, weddings are hazed with a violence well beyond rude fun, county fairs are rife with quacks and fakirs.
     The Perfessor is an emanation from that culture: his title was applied "to all the glib, fraudulent creatures who appeared at carnivals and festive anniversaries to sell hair tonic, quick success, and brand-new sexual potency to the common folk. . . It was a title of respect for an itinerant wizard who robbed the people by sheer power of language."
     The dream sequences are more carnivalesque than Freudian, and more grotesque than celebratory. In one, the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 (inspired in part by the trip Lockridge took with Malcolm Correll to the 1933 World's Fair) is transformed into a Roman Holiday, where bodies are torn and trampled by chariots. Shawnessy then finds himself in "an Egyptian temple where stone idols to lascivious gods stood between brownstone columns. Priestesses naked except for belts of the brown tobacco leaf scattered gold coins at the base of an idol of pure gold, which, changing slowly, became Mr. Cassius P. Carney, the high priest of the temple, in ceremonial robes stained with tobacco juice."
     In the dozens of different types of language--from Hoosier dialect to sentimental effusion to reportage to philosophical dialogue--Lockridge implies that much of the vitality of American life is its linguistic variety. It's a democracy of language--and the language of hicks is as expressive in its sphere as Shawnessy's is in his.
     There's a threat, though, in Senator Garwood Jones's official utterance (when he talks to his buddies he reverts to his lively "profane" style). Shawnessy feels almost swept away by Jones's hypocritical pomposities on the podium and begins to doubt his own speech. And the older Cash Carney's and the General's speech is dry, stumbling, and empty. The linguistic vitality of Raintree County folk can turn fake, it can be drained, it can become official.
     Language also gets Lockridge in trouble with his reader, especially in the earlier chapters, where Shawnessy's boyhood is narrated in childlike syntax, and where Shawnessy's adolescence is narrated in linguistic purple. Some readers have assumed this language must be laid directly on its author's doorstep, not honoring--as in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist--the sometimes distant ironies. Shawnessy never shakes those adolescent yearnings altogether. But there are many languages in the novel, not just Shawnessy's in his various incarnations.
     Shawnessy's great poem would be a return to "dawnwords" with their hint of "Edenic rebellion." So dreaming, he would be the poet of the people, and his own poem would tell of their "vast and vulgar laughters, festive days, their competitions, races, lusty games. Of strong men running to a distant string. Of their rights and their reforms, religions and revivals. Of their shrine to justice, the court house in the middle of the square. Of their plantings, buildings, minings, makings, ravagings, explorings"--indeed the carnivalesque work that Lockridge has written for him.
     Lockridge liked the people of Indiana, and this affection is expressed in the largely affirmative folk portraits of the novel. Yet he sees their vitality under siege, just as America itself has an uncertain future in an era dominated by the flesh of iron.


In a novel both encyclopedic and carnivalesque, one might expect chaos and sprawl. More than any other word, Lockridge would hate "sprawling"--an epithet fixed to his novel by reviewers, nosing out "obscene" and "blasphemous." He rather liked sprawl in Hugo, but was convinced his own novel had intricate, discernible, meaningful form. Anybody in whatever walk of life can have such and such a vision, and espouse values others find exemplary or disgusting. But artistic form is the special province of the artist, and to have it impugned is the unkindest cut of all.
     There are problems with the novel, but I don't think formlessness is one of them. It has a large-scale symmetry. More to the point here, each of its five phases finds a parallel in the life of its author, though not planned with that in mind.
     Early morning of July 4th, 1892, Mr. Shawnessy visits the Historical Museum and recalls his life to age nineteen--from 1839 to 1859. This is the period of beginnings, the opening of the quest of the hero, and dreams of love and literary fame. The principal woman is Nell Gaither, the visitor is Senator Garwood Jones, and the principal myths are the Garden of Eden and Actaeon's spying on Diana at the river's edge. The historical period extends from Native Americans and early settlers to the conquest of the West. This is not a conventional historical novel where history is a backdrop or frame for the hero. Lockridge's linkage is more intimate: Shawnessy's life is a repetition through analogy of the nation's history. So during the period of hopeful westward expansion, Shawnessy comes into self-awareness, learns to love the land and heroic myth, and overhears a woman giving birth.
     We find a parallel in Lockridge's own life in his Fort Wayne and early Bloomington days, his own trip out west, his own "legends in a class-day album," his courtship of Vernice Baker, and his desire to become a great writer.
     In the late morning, Mr. Shawnessy receives his next visitor, the infidel Perfessor, and recalls his loss of innocence in marrying Susanna, who supplants Nell as principal woman. He leaves Raintree County, journeying South into a mythic equivalent of Hades, confronts injustice and insanity, and becomes a father. His sense of identity grows through suffering. Historically, this is the period, 1859-1863, from John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry to the Battle of Gettysburg and a House Divided. Shawnessy's wedding to Susanna is simultaneous with the execution of John Brown, and she gives birth when the firing begins on Fort Sumter.
     In Lockridge's own life this second phase roughly parallels the years 1933-1940, when he left Indiana for ancient parapets abroad, suffered a life-threatening illness that entailed his own fall from innocence, married, became a father, and wrote an epic poem of sickness, nightmare, and the coming of the Second World War. But his fate was preferable to his hero's: Europe in 1933-1934 proved to a richly laden festal board instead of a Hades, and he married his Nell.
     In the early afternoon Mr. Shawnessy orchestrates the Grand Patriotic Program, honoring his next visitor, General Jacob J. Jackson. Shawnessy remembers his years as a soldier, 1863-1865, from the Battle of Chickamauga through Sherman's march to the sea to the end of the Civil War. The mythic subtexts include the Trojan War and the wanderings of Odysseus.
     The biographical equivalent of this third phase is Lockridge's composition of his novel itself, his own Grand Patriotic Program, during the years 1941-1946, when he "hid behind a thousand skirts and let J.W.S. bleed for me all over the thousands of MS. pages of Raintree County."
     In the late afternoon Mr. Shawnessy welcomes the final visitor, financier Cash Carney, and remembers his sober post-War years, 1865 through 1877, including the period in the City of New York when he courted the actress Laura Golden. Mysterious, empty, and tarnished, she is the principal woman of the City Section. Shawnessy is himself tarnished during this Gilded Age of American history, with its greed, exploited labor, and uninspired post-Lincoln presidencies. He almost loses touch with his own aspirations and the great human riddles. Myths include the Sphinx and Golden Calf.
     Biographical parallels to this fourth phase are both direct and prophetic. In 1947, Lockridge will go to New York City for what proves to be the most calamitous moment in his career. In response he will revise the City Section, darkening its tone. Thereafter he will feel himself an exploited laborer and have a falling-out with his publisher over how to divvy up the spoils.
     The novel's fifth and final phase is the homecoming, as Mr. Shawnessy attends the evening meeting of the Waycross Literary Society, where the subject of discussion is the myth of the Golden Bough, the fate of heroes. Mr. Shawnessy is targeted as scapegoat by a tar-and-feather mob led by Reverend Jarvey. Thanks to the deft Perfessor's malacca cane, he escapes the fate of Christ, the sacrificial god-hero. Postponed until now are the pivotal moments of Shawnessy's life. It is a homecoming of memory in this time-drenched novel as he recalls the great footrace, his loss of virginity to Susanna, the death of his son, his homecoming after being reported dead, his discovery of Nell's tombstone, and his homecoming from New York City upon the death of his mother. The memory of love and grief is restorative, as trauma has converted to personal strength through the mercies of time. In his present domesticity--with his children and Esther, a new Eve with Native American blood--he sees the perpetuity of human aspiration through tragedy and across generations. Still the courageous dreamer, he bids farewell to the Perfessor, whose leavetaking is the mirror image of his own emotional homecoming amid complex recognitions of loss and gain.
     Here the parallel to Lockridge's own life is a blatant and terrible irony, for in early 1948 he too will come home to Indiana, feeling rather like someone soon to be tarred and feathered. As the Perfessor prophesied, it will be a homecoming of death.


Wishing his novel never to come to a full stop, Lockridge creates verbal linkages among all sections, often undercutting lyrical crescendos.


The train bore him steadily on, stopped briefly at Three Mile Junction, and then continued--beyond the point, he thought, where he had been accustomed to notice the cupola of the Court House.




[new section]

AWAKENING, the Perfessor snorted. He looked bewildered, clutched at his face, and then, touching his pince-nez, seemed instantly to recover his composure.
     --God! he said. Garwood should bottle and sell that stuff. I haven't had such a good snooze in weeks. Well, program's over, I see.

     Lockridge won't put a period to the end of his novel. He wants it never to end. So after the final dream vision that brought his wife to tears, instead of punctuation he prints the contours of the Shawmucky River--which on close inspection are his hero's and the Perfessor's initials, "JWS," in cursive script. The Shawmucky is the river of life, and Lockridge has attempted a novel in which life flows from summer to distant summer everlastingly--in a miraculous cycle of life and death that always brings more life. Shawnessy, like Nell Gaither, becomes one with the green map of Raintree County in this warmly humanized landscape.
     In an era when serious fiction has been mostly concerned with anti-heroes and subversion of heroic ideology, Raintree County holds tenaciously, amid the desolations that pervade it, to heroic possibility. "It is this posture that places Lockridge in a tradition of hope that wins few readers in these times," writes Leonard Lutwack. In spirit it would open up a path not taken in subsequent American fiction, though in form it is the predecessor of such meganovels or postmodern fiction as The Recognitions, Gravity's Rainbow, The Sot-Weed Factor, Miss MacIntosh, My darling, The Sunlight Dialogues, and Women and Men.
     I feel the novel is sane. Its comedy tempers elegy, its recognitions temper the day-dreaming, family romance is survived, and its hero no longer thinks himself a Shakespeare. Shawnessy's grandiose dreams have been transmuted into another type of questing, larger than personal, as he places his faith instead in the vitality of the many-voiced people, the land that nourishes them, and the myth of the Republic, tarnished but alive.
     Shawnessy survives in the end, his epic unfinished and no publisher in sight. Proxy for his creator, Shawnessy has lived through the worst that Lockridge could imagine for him: warfare, the decline of the Republic, a lost election, the failure of his personal ambition to become a great writer, the death of parents, of his first love, of wife and son, and symbolically even his own death in the swamp and army hospital. He has emerged damaged but whole, no longer the son but now a "father and preserver" in the landscape of his birth, and still a believer in the miracle of being.
     Throughout his suitcase full of manuscript, Lockridge has tested his hero with these "what if"s, extending his own limited personal experience of tragedy and failure. He seems to be asking "what then" would happen should fate sever the objects of his own love and ambition.
     My father wanted his novel never to end. The endlessly courageous dreamer declined all terminal punctuation. But the subtext of courage is fear, and the portfolio of dreams includes nightmare. No, my father hadn't quite imagined the worst for his hero, and--in his final revision of the novel--he added that punctuation after all.

Leaf Motif


Notes and Acknowledgments, Chapter Eight, Shade of the Raintree, "Author in the Epic"

All quotations are taken from Raintree County as published by Houghton Mifflin in 1948. In the next chapter I'll be discussing some deleted passages, including the dream sequence that originally ended the novel. Lockridge's commentary on his own novel is found in a variety of texts: principally the original manuscript in The Lilly Library, "Raintree County: A Critical Estimate," "The Story of Raintree County," and correspondence with Houghton Mifflin.
     I owe much to previous critics of Raintree County, such as Darshan Maini, Donald Greiner, Delia Clarke Temes, Fred Erisman, and Joel Jones, whose work is already cited; also Park Dixon Goist's "Habits of the Heart in Raintree County" and Gerald Nemanic's "Ross Lockridge, Raintree County, and the Epic of Irony," Midamerica, 1975). Greiner is the first critic to discuss the irony that Shawnessy fails to complete his epic yet survives in the end, while Lockridge completes his epic but does not survive. I think Leonard Lutwak's "Raintree County and the Epicising Poet in American Fiction" is the best structural analysis to date of the novel (Ball State University Forum, 1972). My discussion of the novel's structure builds on and somewhat modifies his reading, in which he was assisted by Elizabeth Yoder. Northrop Frye discusses "encyclopedic form" in Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957). Mikhail Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World was suppressed for many years in the Soviet Union and elsewhere; it first appeared in English in 1968.
     For information on Susannah Duke, the real-life Susanna Drake (better known as Elizabeth Taylor), I am indebted to Professor Thomas D. Hamm, Archivist of the Lilly Library of Earlham College. He is himself distantly related to the Dukes, has the photograph of Susannah mentioned herein, and provided information that came orally from Lola Ledbetter, a grand-daughter of Ester Jane Duke Scott, Susannah's sister. He provided genealogical information and recently turned up the divorce proceedings of John Shockley and Susannah Duke in the Henry County (i.e., Raintree County) Courthouse in New Castle (i.e., Freehaven), Indiana. Much of this information was presumably given by word-of-mouth, or in writings now lost, from Elsie Shockley Lockridge to Ross Lockridge, Jr.
     For other information on the Henry County background of the novel, I am indebted to Evelyn Clift and Mildred Davis, curators of the Henry County Historical Society, and to Donald E. Hamilton, Tom Woodward, and William Gulde. Susan Neville of Butler University put together an informative pamphlet, Raintree County, 1983, based on a class project. Herbert L. Heller explores the background material in Historic Henry County (vol. III, 1982).
     The anecdote concerning young Ross in the Frankfort, Kentucky, cemetery was narrated by his father to Lois Taylor Becker.
     The Illustrated Historical Atlas of Henry County, in the possession of my family, has no variants suggesting Edenic rebellion that I've been able to spot--so far.

--Notes, Ch. VIII, pp. 474--5

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